For the majority of my professional life, I didn’t set formal goals on a regular basis.
This absence became embarrassing because it seemed like all other founders I knew had clear goals in their professional and personal lives.
Looking back, I can see that I just didn’t have a great system for regularly defining the outcomes I wanted to achieve, the ability to set tiny actions on a regular basis to reach those outcomes, or the focus to measure my progress along the way. I only started to develop a process that included all these practices in 2016.
Before I dive into the tactics I take to set goals, let’s get on the same page about why we should take the time and focus to set goals in the first place. I’ve found that setting goals gives me a North Star to steer by in my daily life. Without this North Star, we can easily get stuck in routines that don’t serve us or aimlessly follow others rather than focusing on what we truly want in our lives.
Setting goals acts as a shot of motivation each day. Because I’m working following my North Star, I now have a daily roadmap for how I organize my time, what I invest it in learning about, and the people and things I should seek out to help me grow. I have mindfulness about time’s passing, I achieve more than I thought I could, and I’ve developed an invaluable patience with myself for the times when I fall behind on what I want to achieve.
In this article, I walk you through four key ingredients to the successful and energizing goal setting process I use today.
4 Steps for Actually Achieving Your Goals
- Experiment with time ranges.
- Layer multiple time ranges.
- Get support for your goals.
- Refine and iterate on your process.
1. Experiment With Time Ranges
The first ingredient is to experiment with time ranges for your goals. Here’s how that looked for me.
In 2016, I started setting goals regularly using The Five-Minute Journal by Intelligent Change. Each day, I would answer the journal’s prompt, “What would make today great?” with three things. These could range from “finish my part of a project and pass it along to our video editors” and “finish the next section of the workbook for my current online course” to “practice patience during my meeting at noon.”
Then, at the end of the day, the journal prompted me to list “three amazing things that happened today.” Sometimes these items would be connected to my three goals. Other times, these amazing things were totally unrelated. I would then review my three goals for the day and put a checkmark next to the ones I completed.
Adopting a daily frequency for small goals was a great way to begin to learn what constituted a reasonable daily goal and what was too much of a stretch. It also started to remove any fear I had about not meeting the goal. I reflected upon the feelings that came up in me when I set a goal in the morning and didn’t reach it. I came to regard those feelings as information and not a massive failure.
I eventually asked a friend if she’d be interested in committing to a weekly goal check-in via direct messages in a Slack community we were both in. She agreed, and we still do these check-ins today! At the beginning of every week, we each set an intention and list three goals. An example of an intention could be, “I want to feel calmer about a stressful situation in my company.” An intention should be simple; one sentence is perfect. This intention is a way to put a stake in the ground to mark out what you’re hoping to uncover and can act as your “why” throughout the week.
Later in this article, I’ll tell you how the intention you set for your week can inform your weekly goals and daily goals.
2. Layer Multiple Time Ranges
This is my second ingredient to the successful and energizing goal setting process I use today: Layering time ranges will help you see the power of small actions over time.
I now had two time ranges to focus on — my weekly intention and goals would inform the daily goals in my journal. I got even better at taking into account days where I felt “off” and didn’t accomplish anything and how to accept unforeseen obstacles I didn’t think about when I set a weekly goal.
This points to something I’ve found that has been massively valuable to my goal-setting process: I focus most intensely on taking micro-actions on a daily and weekly basis. These micro-actions structure my pursuit of the larger goal. They also help to keep me motivated and able to spot red flags early and often. Rather than stopping at a high-level task like “I want to hire and train a new virtual assistant by the end of the quarter,” my consistent micro-actions provide experiments to reach the larger, overall goal.
Here’s a way to think about this: If running a marathon is the goal, taking the stairs is a micro-action.
Let’s take the coding course I took during my sabbatical in 2017 as an example. I used this daily micro-action approach to finish it. My micro-action of 30 minutes of coding per day helped me sustain momentum without feeling overwhelmed. If I got into a flow, I would continue working past the 30 minutes. But if I was less inspired one particular day, I would simply feel great that I accomplished the 30 minute goal.
Micro-actions help us practice starting new habits in a relaxed way. The key to a powerful micro-action is that it delivers immediate benefit once complete. Without fail, I feel proud and accomplished, even after what, on its face, is only an incremental step forward.
By the end of the coding course, I saw that small actions over time made a significant difference: I clocked 3,300 minutes of coding time, which placed me in the top 10 percent of students on the course platform.
You can start experimenting with micro-actions by thinking about your ideal day. What would you like to have happen in it? This is a good indicator of great micro-actions to undertake. My own ideal day features fitness and movement. A weekly intention could be, “I want to find creative ways to add more movement to my day.” One of my three weekly goals could be, “Try four different ways of moving more during the day that feel fun and light.” Then, one of the days during the week, my daily goal (or micro-action) in the FiveMinute Journal could be, “Walk in my neighborhood for 45 minutes while listening to an audiobook.”
After thinking about what would be foundational to a healthy mindfulness practice, I added micro-actions for meditation, morning and evening journaling, and doing something kind for myself to the list. By the end of my brainstorming, I had a list of a dozen micro-actions I thought would contribute to a beautiful, well-rounded sabbatical day.
3. Get Support for Your Goals
My weekly check-ins with my friend in Slack point to my third ingredient to my goal setting process: Support for your goals is priceless. I have found that having an accountability buddy in my corner gives a meaningful boost to my support system for my goals. We set goals at the beginning of each week and then report a retrospective on our progress at the end of it.
Not only is her support and encouragement wonderful, but I can learn from how she sets her own goals and gain some inspiration. For example, I’ve seen her take approaches to structuring her goals that have changed the way I structure my own. She tends to keep things simple, which helpfully make me reconsider when I’m being overly complicated.
Our weekly check-ins serve as a place to celebrate the things that are working well and examine the areas where I’m still stuck. These check-ins are judgment-free, and sharing my growth with someone else on a regular basis is incredibly powerful. Feedback from a peer I respect has been amazing, and I don’t think I’ll ever go it alone for goals again!
Because of these weekly check-ins, I have learned that the more accountable I am willing to be, the more progress I will see in my goals. The more honest and vulnerable I can be, the more I leave room for someone else to offer game-changing advice.
4. Refine and Iterate on Your Process
This is my fourth ingredient to the successful and energizing goal setting process I use today: Continue to stretch and iterate your goal-setting process.
The last iteration of my goal-setting process just ended on May 31, 2022. In June 2021, I decided to celebrate my birthday by experimenting with setting yearly goals. This process was harder than I expected it to be! It took me two hours of brainstorming and reworking to land on three goals to work toward over the next 12 months. I wanted to be sure they were challenging but not overwhelming, and I wanted to be sure they each clearlymeasureable.
I could’ve stopped at my weekly and daily goals, but I wanted to take on a new challenge. Adding yearly goals wasn’t easy, but I’ve learned so much the past 12 months, and I’m proud of my progress.
Having these three yearly goals set from the beginning of this yearlong period meant I didn’t need to overthink them. I had identified the carrot in such a purposeful way that I didn’t need the stick. I was surprised that I didn’t lose motivation during the last 12 months! That’s because I’ve created a framework for a routine that doesn’t feel ready to explode at any moment from too much pressure. This goal-setting system has created the building blocks for a life that I really enjoy and that feels full of movement toward everything I want to create.
Make Your Goals a Reality
So, in the end, here’s where I am now: I have yearly goals, which inform my weekly goals, and then funnel down into my daily goals. My weekly check-ins with my friend on Slack chart my progress that week toward my yearly goals. After I set that weekly intention and weekly goals, I have the framework for my daily check-ins in The Five-Minute Journal to establish micro-actions each day that support those weekly goals.
These are tools I have found to be very helpful in my goal-setting process:
- MakeProgress.app is a web-based tool to virtually check off micro-actions.
- The Five-Minute Journal is a wonderful format to follow for daily check-ins.
- If you have a goal that’s popular for others, you may be able to find an app with a pre-set roadmap for your micro-actions. An example of this is “Couch to 5K” for running a 5K.
Do you have a tried and true process for setting goals in your business or personal life? I’d love to hear what is working for you so I can refine my own process! Let me know on Twitter @JackieMJensen.